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Court comfort

Kelle Lynn • Jul 21, 2015 at 1:35 PM

Trained as a leader for the blind, Patty switched roles in August 2012 when she met her new handler and caregiver, Jeannie Wernet, the victims advocate for the Ionia County Prosecuting Attorney's office.

Wernet and Patty were on loan to assist in the trial that included 9- and 10-year-old victims.

Now the staff at the Ottawa County courthouse is preparing for a new 'employee' whose presence alone could make it easier for authorities to solve crimes and prosecute criminals.

What some never dreamed was that the new addition would have four legs and that barking would be her official language.

Wernet presented the idea of using a comfort dog when she interviewed with Prosecuting Attorney Ronald Schafer for the court's advocate position. At the end of the interview Schafer asked if she had any questions for him. Wernet challenged him. "How much outside of the box do you think?"  

When he gave her the nod, she asked if he would consider having an advocate dog around the office. She got the job and a few months later, Wernet gave Patty a home and a new position to fill.

"I own her and she lives with me and my three other dogs," Wernet said. "Patty is very easy going and, like any other normal dog at home, she likes to play and doesn't always listen. But as soon as the scarf goes on and it's time to work, she is a true professional."  

Patty recognizes the difference between home and work and behaves differently.  She maintains a mellow attitude even when the kids want to play. Wernet absorbs the costs associated with owning Patty, except the county pays the same liability insurance used for police dogs.

Wernet spoke with advocates in other counties and most say their prosecutors do not have any interest in having a dog.  

"They need to see this is not a disruption in your daily work," Wernet said. "I got lucky with Schafer."

Ottawa County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Judy Mulder said she was initially hesitant about a dog's presence being a distraction for the jury.

"I wanted the jury's focus to be completely directed on what the child has to say,” she said. “But I've done two preliminaries and two trials with a dog and you don't even know a dog is there since it comes in through the back."

Patty stayed curled up by the feet of both victims the entire time they were in court answering questions for the prosecution and the defense. Patty senses when a victim is struggling and lends a paw, or rests her head on the victim's lap to let the child know everything is going to be OK.

"After the preliminary trial I asked the victim if she paid any attention to the dog and she said she reached down and petted Patty a few times during questioning," Mulder said. "I've talked to many victims and their faces light up with excitement at the possibility of having a dog with them."  

Wernet said she hasn't encountered any judges or attorneys that don't support having Patty in the courtroom once they’ve met her.

To read more of this story, see today's print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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